Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1365, (19 - 25 October 2017)
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1365, (19 - 25 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

US-Turkish relations dive

The visa crisis between Washington and Ankara signals unprecedented tension between the two ostensible NATO allies, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid


 US-Turkish relations dive
US-Turkish relations dive

اقرأ باللغة العربية

Some commentators here in Ankara hold that the current set-to with Washington that erupted with the tit-for-tat visa ban initiated by the former on 8 October is the worst and most ominous crisis ever in bilateral US-Turkish relations. In fact, it does not compare at all to previous bouts of tension — and they are many — between the two allies since US President Lyndon Johnson declared an arms embargo against Turkey in response to the Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus in 1974, through the Turkish parliament’s refusal to let US forces use Turkey as a base for the invasion of Iraq 14 years ago (in spite of the fact that then prime minister Abdullah Gul and his shadow prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan signalled their approval), and the Turkish outrage at the insult caused when bags were placed over the heads of Turkish soldiers in northern Iraq on 4 July 2003.

Naturally, the controversy is fierce and tempers are seething in Ankara. Erdogan’s media pool directed its venom against the US ambassador to Turkey and the US in general while pro-government pollsters set to work to produce surveys that demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that the overwhelming majority of public opinion in Turkey is convinced that the US is not a true ally.

The palace is furious. Official presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin spoke of an “insidious plot” against his country which had become “the hope for the oppressed and persecuted throughout the world”. He added that, in contrast to his country’s limited roles in the past, today Turkey undertook leadership roles and had begun to redefine its global position in accordance with the principles of justice and equality.

The media continues to lash out relentlessly against US Ambassador John Bass. It accuses him of meddling in Turkey’s domestic affairs ever since he set foot in Ankara as ambassador in 2014. How dare he criticise an “impartial” judicial verdict against the editor-in-chief and Ankara bureau chief of Cumhuriyet newspaper! He had had the audacity to say that he was concerned and saddened “to see more voices of the independent media in Turkey silenced today”.

Chief orchestrator of the attack, Erdogan, has spared no official in Washington. “We don’t need the US!” he proclaimed in a speech to provincial governors assembled obediently in the palace. “Let me be very clear: the person who caused this is the ambassador here. It is unacceptable for the United States to sacrifice a strategic partner to an ambassador who does not know his place. We are not a tribal state.”

It did not smooth feathers in Ankara when the White House immediately belied the claim and stated that the decision to suspend visa services was coordinated with the State Department, White House and the National Security Council.

The fusillades of accusations and mudslinging kept coming, many informed by Erdogan’s longstanding resentments and grudges. How could he forget the offences of Bass’s predecessors, especially Ricciardone, the outspoken ambassador, fluent in Turkish, who could not check his harsh criticisms of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the long-serving Turkish strongman for their alarming erosion of democracy. During Bass’s confirmation hearings when Obama had nominated him as Ricciardone’s successor, Senator John McCain threatened to withhold his approval unless Bass admitted that Turkey was now ruled by a dictatorship. Bass could not but agree. Three years later, he would get his comeuppance. Still, well aware of Ankara’s games, he charged that the arrest of the US Consulate employee Metin Topuz was motivated by “revenge rather than justice”.

Meanwhile, a significant and influential segment of Turkish society is alarmed and dismayed at the continued hostility and acrimony. They urge calm and restraint as they ponder such questions as to how long this will last, what repercussions it will have and who, exactly, has to bear the consequences. Not least among this crowd are prominent business circles close to the powers-that-be in Ankara but that have innumerable interests that interweave and overlap with those of that nation on the other side of the Atlantic. They are alarmed to see their country, a member of NATO with the second largest army in that alliance, put on par with Iran, Somalia, Libya, Sudan and North Korea as an object of a US visa ban, as though Turkey were some kind of banana republic.

The suspension of US visa services to Turkey will damage bilateral trade, which stands at $17.5 billion. In the first half of this year, from January to August, Turkish exports to the US registered a 33 per cent increase over the same period last year, climbing from $4.318 billion to $5.782 billion. This is now in jeopardy.

But Erdogan seems indifferent to the dark tunnel into which he has plunged his government. Indeed, he remains intent on escalation. Towards this end, he continues to rouse ultranationalist passions behind his holy war, in the pursuit of which he rails against those “who turned Syria into the largest arms market in the world and furnished killers with the latest weapons, not out of faith in democracy but in order to create a terrorist belt along our southern border”. Naturally, he is referring, here, to US support for the primarily Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as opposed to Turkey’s support for Al-Nusra Front and other such takfiri groups.

Erdogan’s defense minister dutifully rushed to add fuel to the fire, warning of how Washington had armed SDF forces and built up an army of 40,000 to 50,000 troops. He made no reference to developments in northern Syria where those forces have nearly attained full control over Raqqa while, to the west, Turkish forces together with Ankara’s Al-Nusra Front ally are groping for a foothold in Idlib.

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